Ears on the Board of Education: December 10, 2020

By Diane Payne

The Board of Education held its final Action Meeting at the end of a year that upended the lives of every person in the world, including Philadelphia students and their families.  The suffering, isolation, and  fear felt by our most vulnerable citizens has been staggering–especially because so much of it was avoidable.  One thing that stood out in this last public meeting was the apparent absence of District administrations’ awareness of this fact. At the November Action Meeting, Superintendent Hite, in answer to concerns raised about students’  mental health,  promised to present this month the supports implemented by his administration.  Students heading into the holiday season with prolonged time off from school,  families whose breadwinners lost jobs and may not be able to afford to celebrate the holidays, some facing eviction–this would have been a perfect time to assure Board Members that our students have a safety net. But there was no presentation nor any question about it from any Board members.   

At October and November meetings, Board members asked Hite about the alarming number of students not yet unaccounted for.  At the October Student Achievement Committee meeting, Board Member McColgan indicated a need for urgency to locate these seemingly lost students.  That urgency never materialized, and this topic was also left off the agenda. 

Board Silent on Community’s Fight to Be Heard

All seven Board members and the two non-voting student representatives attended this remote Action Meeting.  Vacancies left by the resignations of Chris McGinley in April and Ameen Akbar in October remain unfilled.  Lee Huang has tendered his resignation effective after his replacement is secured.  Mayor Kenney has convened his Nominating Panel in order to select, from an unknown number of applicants (reported to be about 60), nine names for the Mayor’s consideration, of which he will choose three.  

APPS members,  in conjunction with the Our City Our Schools Coalition (OCOS), have called on the Mayor to halt this nominating process until the public can attend and testify at the Panel hearings.  At a December 9 press conference, members of APPS and OCOS  outlined our demands.  We told the Mayor in our December 7 letter: 

At this time, we are asking:  that all applications for this public position be released to the public; that you delay the December 15 deadline for the Panel’s submission of their recommended candidates to your office; that you direct the Panel to conduct all deliberations in public; that you direct the Panel to include interactive public testimony at its next public convening.  

The letter also asked the Mayor to confirm that all Nominating Panelists actually fulfill the one requirement in the Home Rule Charter:  that they are registered voters in the city of Philadelphia. APPS’ research indicates that three panel members reside outside the city. We asked that the Mayor release all Panelists’ Statements of Financial Interest, which all City officials, whether elected or appointed, are legally required to file.  As of this writing, the Mayor has not released those documents.  The Mayor’s actions and his stonewalling of the public on this issue show a contempt for the democratic right of Philadelphians to be heard on the selection of the government officials who will represent them in issues of school governance. Is this what the Mayor thinks democracy looks like?  APPS and OCOS did score one significant victory: the Panel will hear public testimony at its December 16 meeting.

 News coverage of the press conference includes Chalkbeat, The Inquirer, and KYW 

APPS contends, as we did in 2018, that the Mayor and the Panel violate the PA Sunshine Act by conducting all deliberations in executive session. The Mayor’s shutting out the public represents an affront especially to his Black and Brown constituents and to those who face struggle in poverty every day.  It is no coincidence that Philadelphia, the poorest of large American big cities, is the only District in the Commonwealth whose people are not permitted to elect their local school board. 

(Board President Wilkerson noted that the Universal Daroff and Universal Bluford non-renewal hearings have ended and that the deadline for written testimony is December 14th.) 

Hite Gives Few Details on Student Services

Superintendent Hite’s remarks on general topics were brief.  He noted that his plan to move to hybrid learning was on hold until further notice due to recent spikes in COVID 19. He said little about COVID testing to be conducted in some in-person school settings. It is important for educators and families to know the specifics of what is being put in place and the anticipated rollout in larger settings, but no further information was supplied by Hite nor asked for by the Board.   

Hite noted that the District tech hotline and tech centers would remain open throughout the holiday break, except on December 25th and January 1st.  This would have been a good time for Board members to ask about barriers to technology that District families continue to experience. During the public speaker portion later in the meeting, some insight on the issue was shared by District staff members who painted disturbing pictures of what some of our students are facing.  The Board’s failure to take action on this issue only adds to the ongoing mistrust between the school communities and the Administration. 

Anticipating a number of registered speakers from Sheppard Elementary, Hite noted that the Comprehensive School Planning Review (CSPR) process is currently on hold and attempted to reassure people that no plans have been finalized. But Sheppard people have heard that before when the District tried twice to close them down. Kudos to the Sheppard people who trust their own community, not District administrators, and act on their knowledge and experience to support the public school they love.  

Few Board members asked Hite questions. Fix Lopez did ask whether COVID testing was being implemented in access centers; Hite responded that it was not. Egea-Hinton noted the importance of having mental health supports in place. McIver noted the need for a future presentation on how micro-grants work to ensure the Board is supporting equity of resources.  The dearth of information and lack of urgency from both Hite administration and the Board, as we head into the holidays, was truly disturbing.

Board Abolishes Two More Committees

The real news, mentioned briefly at the conclusion of the two reports, was the abolition of two more committees, the Finance and Facilities Committee and the Student Achievement and Support Committee. (The Board eliminated the Family and Community Engagement Committee in 2019 after one year and two meetings.)  Egea-Hinton announced that this would be the last of these committee meetings and that the Board would now be conducting business guided by its new “Goals and Guardrails” (see below). No one explained how a new mission statement would take the place of regular venues for in-depth consideration of issues and dialogue with the community that the Board promised when it convened in 2018.  Now the last one in operation,  the Policy Committee meets only four times a year. McIver summarized the December 3rd Student Achievement joint Committee and Leticia Egea-Hinton summarized the Finance and Facility joint Committee.  The committee meeting can be viewed in its entirety at the Board’s Meeting materials page and you can read APPS’ report on this meeting as well.  

In November, five charter companies submitted applications for new charter schools. Because of the last-minute rider that Harrisburg placed on the 2014 cigarette tax bill, the District must consider new charter applications.  The Board, however, does not have to approve any. If those who advocated for school “choice” acted in the best interest of all District students, they would refrain from applying for any new charter in this time of financial and social uncertainty.  Every new charter school comes with a multi-million dollar price tag which cuts the public school funding pie into ever smaller slivers. The only hearing on these applications that will  include public testimony on these applications will be held remotely on December 22nd. This is not a Board meeting; a hearing examiner presides. In the past, the Board has not attended these meetings. The Board rejected all new applications in both 2018 and 2019, and they should continue to reject them. The District does not need, and cannot afford, any new charter schools. The Board cannot justify any staff layoffs or school closings while approving new charter schools. 

Chief of Staff Alicia Prince presented on the Action Item 14, proposed teacher residency costing the District $1,275,000 and which the District bills as a means of diversifying its teaching force.  Prince noted the arrival of a new (unaccredited) program, Urban Teachers, a non-profit out of Baltimore.  District administrators continue to support the cheap fix of recruiting teachers through programs like the Relay School  (another unaccredited program born of corporate ed disruption) rather than extend partnerships with local accredited universities.  Among the public speakers later were two APPS members calling on the District to partner with the many local universities and the Historically Black Colleges (HBC) to recruit teachers of color from accredited instutitions.   The question remains: why is the District shelling out over a million dollars in contracts for a teacher pipeline effort while in the very same breath hinting at layoffs and furloughs? 

Egea-Hinton noted the bleak picture presented again by Chief Financial Officer Uri Monson.  The District’s negative fund balance seems to grow every month.  Monson described the financial picture as “fluid” as the District is looking at a $33 million negative fund balance.  All the more reason to examine each and every expenditure in the monthly list of Action Items against a lens of “essential”–as the Board promised to do months ago.  

After  the Board eliminated the Parent and Community Engagement Committee last year, they established the Parent Advisory Committee, apparently to create the illusion of engagement. The Board does not announce meetings of the Council or include them on the District’s online calendar. In fact, the PAC meetings are not open to the general public.  The Board has PAC members solicit comments from  parents in their neighborhoods and then read a summary at the Action Meeting. APPS has repeatedly asked the Board why PAC representatives are not shown the respect of having their names on the agenda. We have also asked, and received no answer about, where and how the Board follows up on the concerns presented to them by the PAC representative. 

Will “Goals and Guardrails” Bestow Courage and Independence? 

President Wilkerson thanked the Board and the District staff members who contributed to the formulation of their new “Goals and Guardrails”.  The Board took turns in a round-robin reading of the “G and G”. The three subject areas listed as Goals are Reading, Math, College and Career Readiness; the Board does not say what the goals are for those subjects.  The four Guardrails are Welcoming & Supportive Schools, Enriching and well-rounded School Experiences, Partnering with Parents/Family Members, and  Addressing Racist Practices. This repackaging of old ideas again demonstrates the disconnect between the Administration/Board presentations  and the daily experiences of those in the school communities. And for all the Board’s talk of engagement and inclusiveness, the “G and G” present more top-down directives to students and staff.   

In 2018, after the Mayor chose his Board members, but before they were sworn in, Philadelphians could attend  “listening sessions” so that Board members could hear people’s concerns about public schools. (In districts with elected school boards, people can hear from candidates for the board before they are chosen.) These sessions gave community members  some hope that they would have a greater voice about school issues with this new Board.  That hope is fading as the Board operates in much the same way as the SRC, outsourcing District services, approving large contracts for edu-vendors, violating the Sunshine Act, negotiating with  charter operators in secret meetings and taking no steps to hold them accountable, hearing only what could be expressed in the usual three-minute time slot. And leaving no doubts about how little the Board wanted to hear from people, the abolition now of the committees. “Goals and Guardrails” feels less like something stakeholders are actually involved in and more like a top-down directive with lots of questions unanswered.  Where are the concrete proposals? Where are the opportunities for the public to be heard–where their concerns and questions can be heard and responded to? 

Wilkerson said that the “Goals and Guardrails” will lead to a greater focus on student achievement. (As one APPS member commented: How Orwellian to say you are focusing on Student Achievement while at the same meeting abolishing the Student Achievement Committee.) Wilkerson told the press that the Board intends to hold Superintendent Hite accountable for achievement in this new plan. If they haven’t been focusing on student achievement or holding the administration accountable, what have they been doing? Did the Board pass on holding Hite accountable for the Ben Franklin/SLA fiasco because it didn’t have “Goals and Guardrails” to show them how? Will they now be able to do something to reconcile Hite’s role in a debacle that sickened both students and staff and whose cost ballooned five-fold?    

Where  are the specifics about the resources necessary to improve achievement? “Goals and Guardrails”, with its lack of specifics, sounds like the unfunded federal mandates imposed on districts as part of the corporate reform agenda– No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Every Student Succeeds. 

Where in the plan was the input from the staff, students, and administrators who are blamed for what Administration and Board perceive as failures?  A recurring theme from speakers at Board meetings is the difficulty in dealing with the crushing, top-down, ever-changing directives.  A second is the lack of stakeholder trust  in the Administration and the Board.  How is trust being addressed when once again a plan is in place that doesn’t take into account the voices of the people on the ground?  

Will the “G and G” actually affect the Action Items and Board spending?  Since the Board replaced the SRC in 2018, advocates and stakeholders have asked the Board not to approve the same outsourcing to the same corporations and edu-vendors. A budget is a statement of priorities.  The current example of the teacher residency program is just one small illustration.  The Board again approved a cheap fix with this Action Item approval.  No Board member questioned whether it was even appropriate to spend over a million dollars on recruiting new teachers when layoffs are being proposed. 

How does the increasingly intrusive presence of “charity” figure into this new plan?  Grants and donations come from corporate entities, often through their foundations, who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo while taking bows for giving.  This system of charity has been woven into the fabric of the District through The Fund for the School District.  The Fund’s un-elected representatives, whose board meetings are not open to the public, state in the first paragraph on The Fund’s District webpage tab, :

Working with Superintendent William Hite, the executive team of skilled educators and school leadership, we help set funding priorities and manage donations, directing these philanthropic contributions toward the needs of Philadelphia’s public schools to improve educational services and academic achievement.  

The only group that should set funding priorities is the Board of Education, at whose public meetings people can address the priorities.  Where does the Board’s new “Goals and Guardrails” address the equity of funding distribution? Where does it address The Fund’s closed-to-the-public Board meetings or donors’ out-sized seat at the District table?  

Students Demand A Real Voice in their Futures

Student Board Representative Keylisha J. Diaz gave her report in which she said that she and the other student representative are excited about the first Guardrail, which includes mental health support for students.  Diaz’s report did not address the demands brought by students from UrbEd and other organizations calling for students to have voting status on the Board. Wilkerson interjected that after consulting with the legal team on the topic of voting student reps, she “was told” that it was out of the Board’s hands because it would require a change in the PA state law and she said may need a change in the City’s Home Rule Charter as well. Wilkerson failed to indicate her position or support for the students’ demands

Voting Reflects No Change in Board Priorities 

Item 29, Review of Board Policy 004.1, Elimination of the Student Achievement Committee and the Finance and Facilities Committee (for review only, to be voted on at January Action Meeting). 

.Item 22, License/Purchase of Assets with The Trust for Public Land at James R. Lowell Elementary School ($250,000).  This item generated a lengthy discussion about the equity of spending a significant amount of money on one playground at one school.  Fix Lopez and McIver raised questions around how this school was selected, why the high price tag (the total cost for this project is $500,000 including a matching funds grant), the total budget for District playground expenditures, and details on how The Trust for Public Land works. After Hite assured the Board that postponement would not jeopardize the project, Fix Lopez made a motion to table this Action Item which passed unanimously. The Board will revisit after they receive answers to the many questions around how this process works to ensure equitable distribution of resources.  Fix Lopez noted during this discussion that because the District receives matching funds doesn’t mean the Board must approve. This reflects a sentiment that APPS has stressed about many of the Hite Action Items.  

Items 1-9, 13-21, 23-28:  All passed. Huang abstained on Item 13 and 14. 

Item 18: Fix Lopez asked Dr. Hite to confirm that the $7.1 million technology in Item 18 came from the CARES Act and had to be spent in this manner.  Hite agreed.  This was in response to District staff testimony questioning this expenditure.